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Sri Lanka's Lost Generation

by Nalaka Gunawardene, Asia Media News Daily, March 17, 2007

News reports last week simply said that Theeban was shot dead on Mar. 3 by four unidentified persons. The killers had forced their way into the temporary camp for tsunami survivors at Kesar Road, Karaitivu, in eastern Sri Lanka...

Theeben's own journey is now over. He survived a natural calamity and lived through endless hardships of displacement, only to be sucked into the vortex of political violence.

Nalaka Gunawardene remembers Thillainayagam Theeban, a Sri Lankan teenager who survived the 2004 tsunami, but not the political violence that followed

 

Thaillainayagam Theeban 2007 The odds were stacked too strongly against Sri Lankan teenager Thillainayagam Theeban.

First, he and his family happened to be at ground zero of the biggest disaster in living memory, the Indian Ocean tsunami in December, 2004. Within months of that blow came the resurgence of political violence in Sri Lanka, creating a second tragedy for tens of thousands caught in the crossfire. If nature's fury had somehow spared Theeban, there was no such consideration on the part of his murderers.

News reports last week simply said that Theeban was shot dead on Mar. 3 by four unidentified persons. The killers had forced their way into the temporary camp for tsunami survivors at Kesar Road, Karaitivu, in eastern Sri Lanka. One assailant was apprehended by camp residents and handed over to police. The others escaped.

No one yet knows who was responsible for this senseless killing, one of many in a wave of terror and lawlessness currently sweeping Sri Lanka. It is uncertain whether Theeban's killers will ever face justice.

Theeban, 16 years old at the time of his death, was one of eight survivor children in four Asian countries that TVE Asia Pacific tracked for one year for the Children of Tsunami regional media project.

Before the tsunami, Theeban was an eager, talented schoolboy -- fond of mathematics, cricket (hero: Sri Lankan spin bowler Muttiah Muralitharan) and Tamil movies (idol: Indian actor Rajinikanth).

At 14, that world fell apart. Within a few hours, the waves took away his mother and youngest four-year-old brother. The tsunami destroyed their house and ruined his father's thriving fishing business. A middle-class family suddenly found themselves destitute, taking refuge in a temporary shelter.

That was where we found them in January 2005. We were searching for a statistically average family affected by the tsunami whose story we would film for a year. Two weeks of watching mostly sensational and superficial tsunami news on television had convinced us of the need for sustained, empathetic coverage of survivors as they slowly raised their heads.

We didn't set out to add to the on-the-run, one-off reportage that saturated the airwaves. We wanted to stay with the prolonged recovery stories, as they evolved completely unscripted. Our challenge was to mount the editorial, logistical and financial requirements within an ethical framework that respected the communications rights of all affected families -- and do so at eight locations in the four worst-hit countries: India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand.

Once we explained what our project was about, Theeban's father and grandmother -- who had stepped in to take care of her three surviving grandchildren -- agreed to have our video crew visit them every month to film their recovery progress (or the lack thereof).

Hard labour at 14

Life after the tsunami was far from easy for Theeban. He dropped out of school and worked for a few months as an apprentice at a tractor repair garage. When some older boys at work started bullying him, he left the place and joined in efforts to clear coastal rubble. From there, he moved on to various odd jobs in masonry and paddy harvesting.

Thillainayagam Theeban 2007

"I am proud to be working at my age…when other children are studying," he said in one interview. “I can't get a job at some places because I'm too young…I had to lie about my age being 19, to work at the clearing site."

Some days he didn't find any work. Living conditions at the makeshift camp remained sparse as weeks turned into months. The billions that caring people and governments around the world had donated in tsunami aid somehow failed to help this particular family's recovery. And for most Colombo-based charities, eastern towns like Karaitivu were on the wrong side of the island for them to help.

Unable to restart his life, Theeban's father became depressed and alcoholic. As time passed, the family became scattered. The father remarried and moved out, and Theeban's two younger brothers were boarded at a youth hostel in Ampara, an hour's bus ride away.

Chronicling these slow-moving developments on video was difficult. In some months, little or nothing was happening in Theeban's life in spite of an aid-inspired frenzy around him.

At the time of his death, more than 26 months after the mega-disaster, Theeban and his grandmother were still living in the "temporary" camp, dependent on food rations for their daily survival.

Attached

As journalists, we have been trained not to get too attached to the people or subjects we cover, lest they affect our judgment and dilute our objectivity. The four production teams involved in Children of Tsunami initially agreed to follow this norm when we met in Bangkok in early 2005 for our first (and only) planning meeting. We also resolved not to reward our participating families in cash or kind, as they were all participating voluntarily with informed consent.

But the ground reality was different. 2005, Asia's longest year, wore on. As survivors slowly patched their lives together again, our film teams found themselves becoming friends of families or playing Good Samaritan. Sometimes our teams would find a survivor family close to starvation and -- acting purely as human beings, not journalists -- they would buy dry rations or a cooked meal. At other times, finding the children restless or aimless, they would buy them a football, kite or some other inexpensive toy that would produce hours of joy and cheer.

As commissioners and publishers of Children of Tsunami stories, we didn't object to these acts of kindness. Journalism with empathy was far preferable to the cold detachment that textbooks recommend.

Throughout 2005, the camera crew from Video Image, our Sri Lankan production partner, became friends to Theeban's extended family. There was a language barrier -- Theeban spoke no Sinhala, and some of crew did not know Tamil -- but that didn't hinder communications too much.

On some visits, Grandma Sharada would treat the crew with rice cooked in curd, a traditional delicacy prepared with her meagre means at the camp. And the crew members remember well how Theeban was thrilled to accompany them to the pastry shop down the road during his first-ever visit to Colombo.

Simple items or incidents elated Theeban's spirits. Someone gave him a portable audio cassette player that he carried everywhere. It became his most cherished possession.

Until, that is, the new shoes arrived. A spanking new white pair of sneakers was the only item that Theeban bought for himself when he visited Phuket, Thailand for a few days in November 2005. He spent the rest of his modest per diem to buy thoughtful gifts for all his loved ones.

He traveled to Phuket to be part of an Asian forum of children and young people responding to the tsunami. Organised by UNICEF, it brought together over 20 children and youth from five tsunami-affected countries. Close to one hundred adults representing U.N. agencies and humanitarian organisations also came to the Thai resort town to listen to these young people.

Uncaring bureaucracy

It was a huge logistical challenge to send Theeban to Thailand. At our recommendation, UNICEF invited both Theeban and Heshani, a 13-year-old girl from Suduwella, Matara, in southern Sri Lanka, whose story we were also tracking. With all their documents washed away by the waves, we first had to establish the identity of these children and their accompanying guardians. When Theeban produced government-issued documents to the passport office in Colombo, they were flatly rejected simply because everything was written in Tamil, legally an official language in Sri Lanka. It was only after everything was translated into Sinhala and certified that his passport application was accepted.

Even if this confirmed Sri Lanka's well-known bureaucratic apathy and indifference, nothing prepared us for the hostility Theeban would face at Unicef Sri Lanka. The agency's Colombo office was apparently upset that they were bypassed by their own regional office in Bangkok to select the Sri Lankan children (tsunami or not, it's a turf war for these agencies). The U.N. agency's full book of procedures, involving travel claim forms and staggered per diems among others, was thrown at these teenagers, without any consideration of their age or the recent trauma they were recovering from. Ironically, this very agency raised half a billion dollars in tsunami donations for affected children like Heshani and Theeban.

But the trip, when it happened, was the highlight of Theeban's first year after the tsunami. A colleague who was on the same flight recalls how Theeban was fascinated by everything -- Colombo and Bangkok airports and the Thai Airways flight itself were all new experiences. In spite of everything he had been through, he retained a sense of wonder and the ability to smile.

We never met Theeban in person after he returned from Phuket. UNICEF's official report carries photographs showing Theeban taking part in various cultural and group activities during the four-day event. Prasad Pereira, our researcher who accompanied the Sri Lankan children and guardians, said that Theeban slowly opened up to the array of new experiences. He was less expressive than the artistically-inclined Heshani, but in his own pensive way, Theeban had engaged young people from across coastal Asia who had all shared the tsunami.

Our monthly visits to the participating families stopped in late 2005 when we ran out of money to sustain filming, after which contact with the families became less frequent. But our colleagues at Video Image did stay in touch because, as they put it, "We spent almost a year following his life, and we can't just walk away."

If 2005 was long and arduous for Theeban, 2006 proved to be much harder. From bits and pieces of news that eventually found their way to Colombo, we learned that he was abducted by an armed group in mid 2006. Given the complex political and security scenario in Sri Lanka's Eastern Province, we could only hazard to guess who might be responsible. Hundreds of young men, and increasingly young women, are being coerced into combatant roles in an aimless war that has lasted longer than their entire short lives.

At that time, Theeban's father and grandmother sent desperate pleas for help to track down Theeban and secure his release. We who shoot with video cameras felt utterly helpless when confronted by trigger-happy groups whose business is shooting to kill.

Weeks later, Theeban suddenly reappeared at the camp. We don't know what happened during the time he was missing, but his escape was the most likely reason for his cold-blooded murder on Mar. 3 -- a deadly lesson for him, and a warning to others.

Journey ends

Children of Tsunami: The Journey Continues was the title we gave to the one-hour documentary that looked back at the uneven progress of eight families in four countries that we tracked for a year. We parted with these words: "Our journey with the eight families ends here. In the coming months, these families -- and thousands like them -- will continue their own journeys of recovery."

Theeben's own journey is now over. He survived a natural calamity and lived through endless hardships of displacement, only to be sucked into the vortex of political violence.

Whereas the tsunami's devastation helped heal deep-rooted animosities in Indonesia's Aceh province, it only created a temporary lull in Sri Lanka's long-drawn war. Within a few days, the disaster's Sri Lankan death toll (close to 40,000 dead or missing) shocked the world when it happened. Yet, at least twice as many people -- most of them unarmed and uninvolved civilians -- have been killed in over a quarter century of fighting. That doesn't always grab headlines.

Thillainayagam Theeban has become another statistic in a "low-intensity conflict," as some researchers call it. And while this war lasts, it will continue to consume thousands of other young lives -- a grim roll call of Sri Lanka's lost generation.

Nalaka Gunawardene was the creator and executive producer of Children of Tsunami. The views in this essay are his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of TVE Asia Pacific. For more information on the media project, please visit: www.childrenoftsunami.info.